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Jerry Coleman's wit and humility made him unique

Posted: January 10, 2014 - 12:09am

During those final summers in the short life of Three Rivers Stadium, Pirates baseball wasn’t terribly inspiring, nor was it enhanced theatrically by the occasional visit from the San Diego Padres, but there always was hope for a bored columnist in the form of Jerry Coleman.

Coleman had a couple or three things that were getting pretty hard to find toward the end of the 20th century: time, humility and a life’s story that could pass for American literature.

When Coleman died Sunday night in San Diego, heaven became a funnier place, a place that had compromised none of its celestial rectitude by admitting a .260s hitting New York Yankees second baseman.

That’s what Coleman would chat about in the visiting dugout at Three Rivers, about being in New York for both the painful, reluctant where-have-you-gone-Joe DiMaggio sunset and the dawn of Mickey Mantle, about this play or that from the six World Series he played in, about why the import of such a lovely game as baseball always has to take on such delusional dimensions.

He’d seen everything in the game, save for some explanation or instruction as to its proper fit in the culture. I remember griping to him once about players who couldn’t be bothered to run out grounders.

“Ah, nothin’ new,” he said. “I saw Mantle get benched for that.”

The Most Valuable Player of the 1950 World Series was not Mickey Mantle, but Jerry Coleman. He was Rookie of the Year in 1949 and hit .364 against the Milwaukee Braves in the 1957 World Series. But more than that, he emerged in the elegant pages of David Halbertstam’s “Summer of ‘49” as one of the few adults on those dynastic Yankees. It was there he recounted how he’d come to absorb some indispensable baseball advice, namely to stop smoking.

And start drinking.

“Smoking is holding your weight down,” minor league manager Bill Skiff told him. “None of these guys know it, but it cuts their appetites. It’s habit forming, and soon they’d rather smoke than eat, and they lose weight. But you, you’re as skinny as they come. You can’t afford it.”

Then Skiff asked Coleman if he drank.

“Not much,” Jerry said.

“During the season, drink two beers after a game whether you like it or not. You need the fluid — it’ll keep you from losing weight, and it’ll help you relax.”

Coleman’s Yankees teammates would go into baseball lore as some of the most hyper-hydrated and relaxed players the game has ever known, but Coleman’s place in the game’s enduring fabric would come as a Hall of Fame broadcaster whose keen mind often worked faster than his mouth.

It is Jerry Coleman, who got behind the mic for the Yankees and Angels but mostly for the Padres, to whom we owe unforgettable play-by-play gems as the “sun-blown pop-up,” the alert that “Rich Folkers is throwing up in the bullpen,” that perfectly descriptive pop-up slide call “and Winfield slides into second with a stand-up double,” and the flat-out brilliant, “Eric Show will be 0 for 10 if that pop-up comes down.”

What was so typical of Coleman, though, was what he didn’t talk about, what you’d never hear described in dislocated baseballese, never so much as hint at: He was a hero.

Late Sunday night, commissioner Bud Selig called him an “integral part of The Greatest Generation,” and much as I find fault with just about everything Bud says, I can’t even accuse him of hyperbole on that one.

The winner of two Distinguished Flying Crosses, Coleman barely gave baseball a thought after Pearl Harbor was attacked soon after his 17th birthday. His country would soon need him, and that, exclusively, became his motivation. As the only baseball player to fly combat missions in two wars (Ted Williams served in two but flew only in Korea), Coleman flew about 120 missions in the Solomon Islands and the Philippines during World War II and later in Korea.

“Seeing friends die and families cry,” he said for a long ago magazine piece, “was enough to remind me of the proper place to put baseball.”

So that’s where he’d found it, miles above the dark Pacific with no one to talk with, watching the planes of fellow pilots torn apart by enemy assault in the sky all around him.

“I’m only 19,” he said in that same article. “My gunner is 18. God, back home, we couldn’t get the keys to the family car. Now here I’m given my own plane. You grow up fast.

“Real fast.”

That’s the kind of information you had to look for on Jerry Coleman. He wasn’t offering it, but it illuminates everything, right? No wonder he was such an important part of those Yankees clubhouses.

It’s ironic now that Jane Leavy entitled the last best Mantle biography “The Last Boy.”

Coleman was no boy. This was a man, gracious, humble, of class and of courage. In baseball’s iconic lineup of great Americans, you just write his name in it at second base every day and don’t think much about it.

He’d have liked it that way.

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